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On Exhibit: Tang asks why we 'Give a damn.'

On Exhibit: Tang asks why we 'Give a damn.'

On Exhibit: Tang asks why we 'Give a damn.'
“Give a damn.” is the latest exhibit to open at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs.
Photographer: erica miller

The sentiments expressed by a certain jacket worn recently by the first lady seem to play perfectly, if unintentionally, into the latest exhibition to open at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, titled “Give a damn.” 

From the photographs and drawings of protests to advertisements created during the AIDS crisis, “Give a damn.” doesn’t dictate exactly which “damn” one should give. But it certainly offers some options. 

Several workstations are visible upon first stepping into the exhibition, poised for attendees to come and write to their local representatives on any issues they’d like. A transparent box sits with filled-out postcards piling up, all of which the Tang will be mailing out on a regular basis. 

For those who can’t think of anything to say, simply walk through the rest of “Give a damn.” Something will probably strike a chord. And that’s the point.  

“We’re pro-conversation,” said Michael Janairo, assistant director of engagement at the Tang.

But the exhibit isn’t meant to spark conversation for conversation’s sake. “Give a damn.” makes the case for reconsidering what you think you know about the world -- to care enough about it to really consider why. 

Perhaps the most obvious is the wall of Black Panther Party photographs, educational pamphlets and other materials. Often when people consider the Black Panther Party, there is a sense of radicalism. Yet when looking at the pamphlets -- educating members on sickle cell anemia and other health issues -- they don’t seem to fit the initial notion of radicalism. 

“It’s unfortunately sometimes overlooked,” said Rebecca McNamara, the Mellon Collections curator who curated “Give a damn.”

Throughout the exhibition space, which feels open and uncluttered, some works seem to directly challenge the viewer, while others are more subtle, asking viewers to linger longer than usual.  

Take the section dedicated to photographs and drawings of political protests and demonstrations, both in the United States and abroad over the years. It seems the only things to have changed are the police uniforms and the clothing styles: The same issues seem to pop up, along with the same energy of the crowds and the police. Then there’s Michael Patterson-Carver’s “Some Demonstrations Become Celebrations,” a piece somewhere between a political sign and an activist cartoon. These caricature-like figures are marching in a gay pride parade that’s clearly become more of a party than a protest or peaceful demonstration. 

In “Lying Objects,” photographer Laurie Simmons presents a house that seems to have fallen on top of a woman, with her bare legs sticking out of the house. Then, in “Walking Cake II,” a woman seems to be trying to stand and walk with an enormous cake on top of her. The two echo the weight of domestic burdens that are often foisted on women, asking viewers to perhaps reevaluate an issue that’s been a topic of much debate for decades. 

The Tang is also not immune to the challenge of considering its own views and ways of operating. 

Take Wendy Red Star’s “Four Seasons” series. The artist, who is Native American, set up a series of dioramas, some posed with blow-up plastic animals and clearly poor representations of Native American culture. The artist sits perfectly poised in each, looking out with the same faux lifelike look of mannequins seen at museums. 

She’s asking museums, curators, directors, etc., to rethink and reconsider how they represent Native Americans in both a modern and historical sense. She’s also asking viewers to reconsider what they know about Native Americans. 

“It’s up to you to use your critical eye,” McNamara said. 

In a way, the exhibition starts and ends with bright pieces and prints by Corita Kent, which makes sense, as the show is named after one of her pieces, “Give a damn.” Kent was as much an artist as she was a Roman Catholic sister, an activist and an educator. Her work was inspired by all the social and political strife she was seeing, as well as the apathy to it. Despite the hot pinks, brilliant yellows and generally cheery colors of her pieces, digging deeper and reading the (literally) fine print in her works reveals her calls for people to “give a damn.”

She challenges people to not only care about the world around them, but to continually reconsider their perceived notions of truth. 

If you go

  • Saturday is the Tang’s annual Frances Day, and that means live music, artist visits and a lot of activities. 
  • From 2 to 5 p.m., attendees can drop by for printmaking activities with Kamau Amu Patton, a photo diorama with Wendy Red Star and Beatrice Red Star Fletcher, button making, sun visor decorating and more. 
  • Artist Dona Nelson, whose work is on exhibition at the Tang (“Dona Nelson: Stand Alone Paintings”), will give a gallery tour with director Ian Berry at 4 p.m.
  • Rebecca McNamara will also be giving a tour of “Give a damn.” at 3 p.m. For information, visit tang.skidmore.edu.
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